Stalking bonefish on the flats – what to do when beginners luck runs out

The morning had been dotted with captures of small reef fish, each fish slightly more bizarre than the last. First a bluefin trevally, then a parrot fish, a cornet fish and then a strange little goby thing with razor sharp teeth. Looks aside, they were a bit of fun and they helped to keep me enthused and my mind alert – but they were not the target species and were of course, released. As I continued to wade along the flats I kept looking, searching, hoping to see a big green shape in the water. The winds were light and the sun was blazing. It was by far the best ‘seeing’ day for many trips out to the flats.  As I peered through polarized glasses the water would lap against the backs of my bare legs. Despite being winter in Hawaii, I was still wearing board shorts.

Bonefish by-catch comes in all shapes and sizes, these guys are a semi-regular catch. This was caught a few weeks ago (on a different lure)

The flats consisted of a matrix of reef and sand. The reef being perhaps 30-50cms higher than the sand.  Occasionally I would step down off a piece of the reef and disappear up to my waist in tropical water. I hoisted the straps on my backpack to keep it up and out of the water (my car keys were in there somewhere). Each of these sandy basins was often smaller than a backyard swimming pool and with the tide now coming in, boy did they look fishy. I made my way slowly and deliberately around, and occasionally across, several of these basins,  trying to stand tall for the best views into the water. And then, as I stepped up onto the reef I saw it, clear as day, right there in front of me.

Reefy flats, note the deeper hole on the right hand side. These seem to be prime feeding areas for hungry bones

Only 6 or 7 metres away was a large, green, cylindrical shape. It seemed to glow as the rays of sunshine penetrated the shallow water. It could only be one thing. A bonefish. A really big bonefish. Perhaps 8 pounds. Perhaps more. Fisherman are of course prone to exaggerate, especially when their quarry is still underwater (apparently they look bigger in their natural habitat…) but I’m pretty sure this was 8 pounds. Fish of this size are considered only marginally better than average in Hawaii, but my pounding heart was relaying a signal from my brain that I considered this a monster.

I stopped dead. I dare not move. I dare not even breath for fear of spooking the fish. Possessing some of the largest eyes of any fish that lives in the reefs and sand flats, bonefish have spectacular vision.  It turned side on and I could now clearly see its head and a single large beady eye. Was it looking down at the reef, or up at me? In that moment, my heart sank. It slunk down off the reef into the next small basin. CR&P! I muttered. It was the first and only bonefish I would see that day and I was pretty sure I had just spooked it.

Bonefish have big eyes and can spook easily in shallow water

The little basin where the fish had disappeared was dark green, suggesting a nice deep hole to forage for tasty crabs or shrimp. The extra water depth made it impossible to clearly make out the bottom, just lumps of yellow, brown and beige, distorted by the ruffled surface of the water. I plucked the small crab / shrimp pattern soft plastic off the bottom guide and flicked it into the hole. The heck with it. What have I got to lose? Maybe there is a second one down there? I closed the bail arm, took up the slack and began an all too familiar retrieve.

I pictured the little lure underwater, its little arms and claws trailing behind it as it nervously backed through the water, trying to defend itself from some marauding attacker. It would flit and scuffle along the bottom – not swim. Crabs don’t swim. The 1/8oz jig head was heavy enough that it would never rise up much higher than a foot off the bottom before sinking back into the sand. As I twitched the rod tip a small puff of sand would disturb the bottom as the lead jig head leapt forward a few inches from a standing start. Then I would stop winding and the creature would nestle back onto the bottom, claws waving, setting up again in a defensive pose.

This little plastic (Zman Crusteaz) has fooled more than a couple of bonefish so far. The arms tend to float and wave around at rest

And then all hell broke loose.  After only 3 or 4 twitches across the bottom, the lure was sucked up on the pause. Apparently those little claws were no deterrent to a hungry fish. The line started to draw tight and I leaned back on the rod. I knew what was about to happen and it was going to be fantastic!  The line screamed off the reel as metres and metres of orange Sufix braid disappeared towards the horizon. I was so excited but also surprisingly relaxed. I’ve experienced this before and I know that the fish WILL eventually stop running. The spool continued to sing and the amount of spool visible was steadily increasing as it emptied of line.  I gave the drag cap a couple more clicks just to increase the resistance a little more. It seemed to have the desired effect. The fish suddenly slowed and then came to a complete stop. Like a drill that a new angler might use to practice the pump-and-wind technique, the fish was now behaving as a dead weight. I pumped and I winded – or is that wound? Whatever the verb, I steadily clawed back half of the 70 or so metres of braid that had vanished off the reel. Then the fish started to stir. I could feel it regaining its energy and it was less and less willing to get dragged along towards my position. Transferred through the braid and graphite I knew it was about to go on its second and most likely final, run.  Still relaxed and still confident of landing the fish I stopped applying pressure for just a moment, trying to minimise the shock through the line and the likelihood of popping a knot as it surged again on another powerful run.

Big mistake.

In that moment, the fish sank perhaps a couple of feet in the water column, probably into another swimming pool-sized depression between the reefs. As the fish took off the angle of the line must have scraped along something hard and pointy (eg coral) and in the blink of an eye it was now free. As I wound in the limp line I looked carefully at the leader material. The entire length, perhaps 6 feet was shredded.

Disappointment and disbelief coursed through my body. Why did I back off on the fish – even for just a moment? Should I have let it take so much line on the first run? Am I kidding myself trying to catch these powerful fish with 6lb braid and 15lb leader? Then I stopped myself. It’s fishing. This stuff happens. Especially when fishing around coral and reef and a big fish rips 70 metres of line off your reel. No one said bone fishing was easy. And like Lee, who so wisely concluded after losing an amazing wild trout in Scotland – that was an awesome experience!

What is becoming clear is that any previous success catching bonefish on plastics could largely be attributed to season (summer is considered by many to be better than winter), environment (the area where I’ve caught fish previously has a lot less reef to get snagged on), and dumb luck (I would never have been relaxed enough to back off on a fish – even for a moment).

This is the caliber of fish (and bigger!) I have been trying to catch since some early success last year

And so, like many a defeated anglers before me, I’ve concluded it is important to celebrate these moments in fishing we ARE lucky enough to experience, even if they don’t end well (the fish might disagree).  Apparently this 8 pound bonefish hadn’t seen me and moments later had eagerly scoffed the soft plastic. I try to remind myself that catching a bone on a plastic was a major goal I had set myself while living here and not one I was sure could even be achieved. Fortunately it only took 3 or 4 sessions last year to start to crack the code. Now, through social media I am aware of another 2 or 3 local anglers who are pursuing these great fish with plastics and spin gear (independently of some recently arrived Aussie punk).

With Tarpon fishing, many guides and anglers believe it is enough to have simply hooked a fish on fly or lure and to have experienced some acrobatics. After a few jumps the fish is ‘shaken’ free or broken off and allowed to continue on its merry way. A pragmatic solution when the alternative might be to play the fish for so long that it only comes to the boat once it is essentially dead.

If there was an equivalent experience for bonefish, it would definitely be the first run. Sometimes hours and even days can go by on the flats between fish with the time spent practicing a relatively slow and deliberate retrieve in this depth of water (0.5-1.0m). And then before you can say ‘bloody hell I’m on!’ you’ve lost 50 metres of line. Pound for pound, I don’t know of any other fish that can pull this hard. And while my initial beginners luck with these fish may have worn off, the memories most certainly have not…

Tight lines

Graz

flickandflyjournal.com

Hamish Webb, Dan Firth, Graham Fifield and Lee Georgeson have been fishing the south-east Australian region since 1987. Since then they’ve become avid sportfishermen who are constantly looking for new ways to challenge themselves. They are all scientists and conservationists who are passionate about the long-term sustainability of the ecosystem in which they live. They promote understanding and appreciation of the complex socio-political, economic and environmental issues surrounding fish, fishing and fisheries, while never losing sight of the various motivations that keep them coming back. In English, that means they love all things fishing and have a damn good time on the water, and that’s all that really counts in the end!

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